The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, took a long-awaited step toward cutting planet-warming emissions on Tuesday with the proposal of a new rule to regulate methane from oil and gas operations. The agency estimates that the regulations will cut methane emissions by 41 million tons (37 million metric tons) between 2023 and 2035 — the equivalent of shutting down 234 coal plants for one year. With two pieces of legislation that contain climate provisions currently on shaky ground on Capitol Hill, the rule lends some credibility to President Joe Biden’s calls on other nations to step up their climate commitments at COP26, the United Nations climate change conference taking place in Glasgow this month.

Environmental experts and advocates called the rule an important first step, but many criticized the proposal for missing a major source of pollution and said that much steeper methane reductions are needed. 

“There are areas where the EPA has not gone as far as I would have liked,” said Arvind Ravikumar, a methane researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. The rule exempts some low-emitting wells from inspections and does not address the practice of burning off methane from oil and gas wells, exceptions that Ravikumar called missed opportunities. “We would like to see those exceptions closed, but these are all minor quibbles. Overall, it’s a very strong methane rule.”

Methane is a vexatious gas that packs a much stronger punch than carbon dioxide when it comes to heating up the planet. By one estimate, methane has been responsible for about 30 percent of the warming the world has seen since preindustrial times. And since methane breaks down in a matter of decades, while CO2 persists and warms the planet for centuries, cutting methane emissions today would lower its concentration in the atmosphere quite quickly — which would slow down climate change and stave off some of its worst impacts. 

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There are various sources of methane — cows belch it, landfills leak it — and the White House released a new methane emissions action plan on Tuesday that shows how the Biden administration plans to address each one. The proposed EPA regulations target just one sliver of the methane pie: emissions from oil and gas drilling operations. The U.S. oil and gas industry is responsible for 30 percent of methane emissions nationally, and the Environmental Defense Fund, or EDF, estimates that the sector emits 16 million metric tons of methane annually — or about the equivalent of running 101 coal plants for a year. Most of those emissions are avoidable.

Methane is the primary component in natural gas, one of the less profitable products that oil and gas companies make. When there’s a natural gas glut or a pipeline shortage, well operators are allowed to burn off the excess — a practice known as “flaring.” Flaring is preferable to “venting” — which refers to allowing the gas to escape into the atmosphere — since burning converts methane into the still harmful but less potent carbon dioxide. Both flaring and venting are major sources of greenhouse gases in oil and gas fields. Methane also leaks from the cracks and seals of well heads, pipelines, and associated infrastructure — “fugitive emissions” in industry parlance.

EPA’s new rule tackles two of these three sources of emissions — venting and fugitive emissions — and the agency said it would propose a supplemental rule next year with additional regulations. Crucially, the new rule applies to oil and gas wells that have already been drilled, in addition to new wells. Jon Goldstein, the senior director of regulatory and legislative affairs at EDF, said this alone was groundbreaking. “For the first time when this proposal is finalized, EPA will have regulations in place for the hundreds of thousands of existing oil and gas wells across the U.S.,” Goldstein told Grist. The EPA estimates that there are more than 900,000 active wells nationally. Prior methane regulations put in place by the Obama administration only applied to new wells.

The proposed rule prohibits operators from venting, a practice that is already restricted by some state regulators. It also requires quarterly inspections of larger wells to find methane leaks from equipment like tanks and piping and fix them. However, for well sites with lower emissions, the rule either exempts operators from inspections or requires semi-annual inspections. “What the science is showing is that these leaks can crop up at any time,” said Goldstein, “and so it’s really important to get even smaller wells inspected as frequently as possible, so that we’re finding and fixing these leaks as quickly as we can.” EPA committed to reconsider its requirements for low-emitting wells in next year’s supplemental rule.

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Tuesday’s proposal also fails to put limits on flaring, a wasteful practice that oil and gas executives have admitted is a black eye for the industry. In 2019, companies reported venting and flaring almost 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas every day, more than 1 percent of all natural gas extracted from underground. Though flares are supposed to burn methane, they frequently malfunction and just end up venting the methane anyway. An EDF survey found that one in 10 flares were unlit or partially burning in the Permian Basin, which straddles West Texas and New Mexico and is the largest shale field in the country. EPA officials said the agency will tackle flaring in a separate rule next year. 

Wells abandoned by defunct operators that have become the state or federal government’s responsibility are also not covered under the agency’s new rule, but a well-plugging program included in the infrastructure bill in Congress could serve a similar function. The bill, which has been passed by the Senate and is awaiting a vote in the House, currently sets aside $4.7 billion to identify and plug orphaned wells. 

Ravikumar estimated that the EPA rule will cut emissions from oil and gas fields by half. The White House’s new methane action plan also outlines rules forthcoming from the Department of the Interior and Department of Transportation to reduce methane pollution from oil and gas extraction on public lands and from the nation’s 400,000 miles of onshore gathering pipelines. All of those new regulations combined will eliminate about two-thirds of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, Ravikumar said. 

Stronger regulations will not only help the climate, but will also improve public health. Methane is a major contributor to ground-level ozone, or what we usually call smog. The nonprofit Clean Air Task Force has estimated that ozone from oil and gas production is responsible for more than 750,000 summertime asthma attacks in children who live nearby. Methane from oil and gas wells is also often released in a cloud of dangerous gases like benzene, a carcinogenic chemical. Studies have shown that those who live near oil and gas production sites suffer from high rates of respiratory and reproductive problems.

Some environmental advocates say methane regulations are an important first step but that the government urgently needs to create a plan to phase down oil and gas drilling altogether. “We’re out of time to tinker around the edges on climate,” said Jean Su, energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “Cutting methane emissions from the oil and gas sector isn’t enough to meet science-based climate targets without also limiting fossil fuel production.”

With Biden’s infrastructure and reconciliation bills in flux in Congress, the methane rule will be a crucial element in establishing his credibility at COP26. There Biden faces the tough job of convincing other countries that the U.S. — which is responsible for 40 percent of excess carbon dioxide emissions historically — is taking climate change seriously and is decarbonizing quickly. On Tuesday, the U.S. and the European Union officially launched the Global Methane Pledge, a promise to slash methane emissions from all sources by 30 percent in the next decade. 

The new EPA regulations, along with those expected from the Interior Department and Department of Transportation, mean that 22 to 25 percent of the U.S.’ reduction under the pledge will come from the oil and gas sector, Ravikumar estimated.  

The proposed rule has a long road ahead before being implemented. The EPA intends to finalize it by the end of next year after a public comment period. Even after the rule is finalized, state agencies tasked with enforcement will need to put together implementation plans. Goldstein said the earliest the rule will go into effect is 2023. 

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